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Local 1 members are proving the power of Chicago's neighborhood schools

3/09/2016
“There seems to be a misconception that, as union members, we’re only interested in our salary and benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

To the union teachers and staff at Darwin Elementary School on Chicago’s north side, “Great Happens Here” is not just a school motto, it’s a daily reality this neighborhood school has worked tirelessly to achieve. In just three years, their focus on student leadership and parent involvement has created a vibrant, engaging learning environment in the 450-student K-8 school, which is one of just five neighborhood “Leader in Me” schools in Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Darwin staff and teachers, including veteran educator Julie Gabrick, a 20-year PE teacher at Darwin, are members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), IFT Local 1. Gabrick was also a Local 1 delegate for 11 years. She says she is proud of the amazing environment she and her colleagues have established at Darwin.
“Kids at Darwin want to be here because of this powerful positive climate that we’ve created. I’ve been teaching for 31 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Gabrick said.

“We’re doing this through sheer will. We’re not focusing on test scores, but relationship building with the kids. We’re showing them that they have talent and the ability to be leaders in our school. They consistently rise to the challenge because they are so excited that they get to have a voice in their school.”
Darwin teachers, staff, and administrators utilize the “Leader in Me” process, which includes a kid-friendly version of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The program is designed to integrate leadership development into daily curriculum and activities, creating a culture where every student is encouraged to set and achieve goals and be a positive influence. The end goal is to create students who are confident and prepared to enter the workforce and be leaders in the 21st century.

It’s clear their efforts are paying off. Gabrick says they have dramatically increased student achievement and improved student and staff morale at the school. At the same time, disciplinary referrals have decreased significantly and parent involvement and satisfaction in the school has skyrocketed.

Students and parents are more engaged than ever, with students demonstrating their leadership skills in the classroom every day, at the school’s annual student-run talent show, by providing building tours to parents, and more. Parents are encouraged to visit and be involved at events, and families are even invited to a free monthly movie night at the school that helps bring everyone in the Darwin community together.


Watch this “We Are Darwin” video to learn more about the school’s amazing accomplishments.


But despite the success, Darwin is facing declining enrollment and concerns about consolidation or closure.
“The struggle that’s facing our school is we need more students,” Gabrick said. “We once had 1,400 students. We lost 50 students last year. We have 150 students in our neighborhood being bussed to magnet, selective enrollment, and charter schools. We want more parents to realize there is a gold mine here at Darwin, right in their own neighborhood.”
In a school district where parents are encouraged to “shop” for their children’s public education, Darwin’s concerns mirror those of other Chicago schools, whose teachers and staff are committed to serving kids in their own neighborhoods. In recent years, more than 50 schools, mainly serving low-income students in predominantly African-American and Hispanic areas, have been closed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s appointed school board.

That’s why the CTU continues to fight for legislation to allow city residents to elect school board members, as happens in every other Illinois school district. You can read about the union’s recent progress here.

In the meantime, Gabrick and her colleagues and all the other hard-working educators and staff at CPS schools will continue to try to attract new students by doing what they do best – educating kids and helping communities.
“We understand what it takes to make a really good school, and we know that collaboration among everyone involved is critical,” Gabrick said. “This school is a testament to what dedicated teachers and union members can - and are - doing in neighborhoods across this city.

“There seems to be a misconception that, as union members, we’re only interested in our salary and benefits," Gabrick added. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe every student is gifted, and we want to load them up with social, emotional, and other skills that will help them grow and be a success in life. We will never give up on that. That is the truth people need to understand.”

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